Ambition, Time and Motivation

May 20, 2015

Recently a fellow comic creator and friend demontales wrote about his frustrations in having abundant ideas in the medium but being unable to see them through.

Having suffered plenty of my own dead ends and prematurely concluded projects it got me thinking that it might be good to share how my own methods have evolved to accommodate limitations. It’s ironic that I’ve been meaning to write more often about my work but failing to find the time so this struck me as an ideal topic to jump in with.

Had I a time travelling Delorean I'd finish my comics, give them to my past self and then be forced to stop it from happening to prevent a time paradox.

Had I a time travelling Delorean I’d finish my comics, give them to my past self and then be forced to stop it from happening to prevent a time paradox.

To my mind there are two main overlapping areas that have changed in the last couple of years, ambition and time.

Time is has become a truly finite resource for me and it’s only looking back now that I realise what an obscene amount I had before, and how much of it was squandered chasing stars rather than following a road with a clearly mapped out beginning and end. Between taking on a demanding (occasionally rewarding) design job and entering a into a serious relationship the gaps in my schedule have contracted enormously.

This is where management of ambition comes in; first and foremost in the department of ideas. The thing is that everyone has ideas, some good, a lot bad and maybe a few that are truly brilliant. The trick is in getting them out of your head into the real world, preferably in a form which others can appreciate.

Ideas are not such a problem for me – not that I can objectively vouch for their quality – but my main failing since getting into comics is in overestimating my abilities and thinking that the best way to approach the medium is with everything planned out in one go and taking idea generation out of production entirely. For some folks this might work but I know now that it was a huge mistake.

With my last comic ‘Branch‘ I wrote out a complete script for an enormous complex story, and drew concepts for nearly every character before I even made the first page. None of this was necessarily bad, some of it indeed I’m still pleased with but the mistake was in assuming I would continue to be motivated over a lengthy production by the ideas I’d had then rather than the ideas that I was continuing to have and develop.

This is just me, I wouldn’t suggest it applies to everyone but what I’ve learned is that I’m only truly inspired to draw comics when I have lots of room for improvisation. It flies completely in the face of what I learned when I was educated in film – never shoot without a finished script on at least draft three – but I’m sure now that it’s only way I can really make it work and see something through.

I do still plan of course, but it’s with a great deal more restraint than a formerly had; looking to the humble successes of my short one-shots rather than my failed epics Apothcary Supreme is at present only backed by a single script for a 30 page opening story rather than an enormous tome charting an odyssey with complete back stories and conclusions. Sure, I have notes and ideas for further stories, but I deliberately left myself room this time to change them and inject new ideas without upsetting some grand arch narrative and feeling like I’ve wasted lots of time. Time which – as I pointed out – is considerably diminished.

Even what’s actually scripted has and likely will change before I’m done, I’m not entirely decided on my existing ending to the issue and honestly that’s what keeps my creative spark going; the feeling that almost anything can still happen should I have a good enough idea. It’s this approach which keeps the project truly alive for me, a true creative outlet rather than the outdated light stream from a fading star.

It’s an approach which also applies to my reasoning for going back to basics with the drawings and largely eschewing digital techniques from the process. Going pen to paper may be crude in some respects with more painful mistakes which are potentially difficult to correct but the immediacy appeals to me in a way which digital work increasingly fails to, feeling genuinely cathartic rather than a chore. People will nearly always favour colour, but black and white hatching simply feels like a truer representation of my creative drive than one filtered through a computer.

None of this is to say my problems are now solved and that there aren’t more struggles and mistakes ahead. I’m still fighting for time between everything life has to throw at me while Apothecary Supreme’s backlog buffer is getting progressively thinner.

Still I know this has definitely been a step in the right direction for me.


The Apothecary is in!

April 1, 2015

Well here it is, my new comic Apothecary Supreme has begun going online today on The Duck and ComicFury.

ApothIssue1CoverTEMPj

I’ve been at it a while since as mentioned in the last post I really wanted to have something this time before sharing it.  I’ve got a decent backlog to ensure regular updates (Wednesdays) for a while, no telling if I’ll be able to keep the pace up but at least sharing will spur me on to work a little harder.

It’s essentially an episodic fantasy comic centring on Greta – a small eccentric apothecary sporting a bit of a mean streak.

GretaFigureConcept1jThere will be monsters and horror aplenty but I’ve also tried to imbue it with a darkly humorous edge to offset the more ridiculous/obscene elements.

As of the moment I’m focusing on finishing the first issue as a bit of an experiment to see how well it turns out. Assuming I’m successful I’ll most likely work on more issues, however for now I don’t want to repeat my old mistakes and bite off more than I can chew; my initial goal is to simply tell a satisfying self contained story in around 30 pages.

So here goes, my 1st comic to appear online in almost two years, onwards!


Coming out of Cold Sleep

February 21, 2015

It’s been a while hasn’t it?… I say to what is likely an empty room…

Aliens-ColdSleep

‘Sleep’ is honestly far from the truth given how busy things have been in my absence from internet updates; work, relationships and life generally have all been exhausting, moving at turbo pace as I cling on for dear life. However, I’m gradually coming back online and I figured some kind of explanation was in order on the off-chance anyone is still left reading this derelict URL.

I’ll get it out of the way. ‘Branch’, my cyberpunk epic and the original focus of this blog is caput. Abandoned. Left for dead. It still makes me wince to say it outright, but the decision to pull the plug was made a long time ago and while saddening to me it was definitely the right call.

There were many reasons; the fact my heart was no longer in it, the longing to return to traditional methods, my awful update schedule, my slapdash promotion, the increasingly awkward connection to my bygone Masters degree. In the end I think I can summarise it most simply as trying to build a galleon before I’d figured out how to build a boat.

The script I wrote for Branch is one I’m still quietly proud of, but realising it on a reasonable timescale as intended was a challenge I was not up to and perhaps, may never be. It was this crushing revelation and the ensuing embarrassment that drove me off the web and back into my bedroom to go looking for my confidence. I was furious with myself for releasing it in an unfinished state, with the conclusion unlikely to be delivered before my prospective audience died of boredom.

What I can say now in retrospect is that the project wasn’t an entirely fruitless exercise. The product of my efforts may never have fully materialised but the lessons learned were extremely valuable. Painful as it was it allowed me to feel the boundaries of my skills and more importantly where my strengths lie.

Branch is not my first big failure – as I have numerous other abandoned comics to my name – but I want to make sure it is my last for some time. I can apologise all I want for all the false starts people have wasted time on (seriously guys, sorry) but I think it’s more important to take action which will provide the results I’ve been failing to provide.

As some of you may notice – silent room – ahem, as may be apparent from my older posts I’ve repurposed this blog for general comic output and stripped everything back to be nice and simple. Being straight, I don’t want to faff around presenting a nice wordpress, I want to get on with actual comics first and foremost without any of the old excuses.

GretaBackpack2webAs the concept art above illustrates I have still been at work on comic stuff while I’ve been away. I wanted to have a clear plot, plan and a nice backlog of pages before I showed anything publicly, what I absolutely didn’t want was another load of long hiatuses and broken promises.

The story this time is a reasonably lengthed little comic, open to being a serial but self-contained and achievable, once again embracing the hand drawn black and white crosshatching I started out in. It’s been progressing quietly for some time now and all being well it should start appearing online in the next few months with a goal for print in the not too distant future.

I could say more about it, slip you plot hints or apologise and moan some more for my past failings but honestly, right now I just want to shut up, sit down and get drawing again.

So yeah, stay tuned!


There’s Always a Lighthouse, There’s Always a Man, and There’s Always a City: Contemplating Bioshock

October 5, 2013

2013-06-15_00003

Hype is often a truly crushing thing. In such a media and communication intensive world it’s virtually impossible for any book, film, artwork, piece of music or game to be viewed in a cultural vacuum, expectations will always shape our impression of things, sometimes for the better, often for the worse.

Take the recent Neill Blomkamp film Elysium, I enjoyed it a lot; it had some spectacular effects work, brilliant little world details, a level of grittiness which I feel is becoming rarity in modern SF movies and a satisfying story. I liked it a lot, wanted to love it and I probably would have-

If I hadn’t seen District 9 first.

The problem is that the movie’s aesthetics and tone follow on so closely from its directorial predecessor that I think deep down I wanted it to provoke the same shock and awe the latter did. Only how could it? District 9 came from nowhere, a movie with almost no recognisable names attached, set in an offbeat location on the eve of a certain other far more heavily hyped sci-fi movie.

I walked into D9 with modest expectations and was completely blown away, but with Blomkamp since praised as an established talent, big-names attached and ‘From the director of-‘ plastered on posters everywhere did Elysium ever really have a chance of meeting my expectations?

Ah, Bioshock 2... How I wanted to love you...

Ah, Bioshock 2… How I wanted to love you…

Bioshock 2 – a far more direct videogame sequel – suffered similarly for me. It’s a good game to be sure, with a plethora of mechanical improvements and obvious care poured into its development. Under different circumstances might have been received better, unfortunately it follows a predecessor which literally redefined how I – and likely many others – have come to think of the medium. Developed by a different team, following the path laid down by its precursor with almost religious care it may well have been a doomed endevour from the get go.

Yesterday I finished Bioshock Infinite, the latest addition to the series. Having been developed by the Irrational Games and my personal hero Ken Levine who worked on the first entry I approached this sort-of sequel with a tempered excitement, wary that given my adoration of Bioshock it would be unlikely to reach those same heights again. I wanted it to be great but I know how often that desire is goes unfulfilled.

And oh my it certainly has its problems; there’s plenty of missed opportunities and clunky implementation. However the game’s trump card and defining point of brilliance is that it doesn’t even try to exceed the hype surrounding the series. It incorporates it.

It’s only fair to warn you now that there are going to be SPOILERS for the plots of System Shock 2 and the original Bioshock. I’ll try to lay off too many specifics in the case of Bioshock Infinite but if you’re still planning on checking it out with all the surprises intact I’d ask that you proceed with caution.

Starting with a bit of history we roll way back to 1999 and the release of System Shock 2, Irrational’s debut project co-developed by series creator Looking Glass Software. This was Ken Levine’s first time taking the lead on writing and design and while it’s not at ‘Bioshock’ game in name it’s where the seeds to its successor are found, forming what I feel is the first entry in a thematic ‘shock’ trilogy.

'Course I do! You don't have to spell it out... On a wall... In blood...

‘Course I do! You don’t have to spell it out… On a wall… In blood… Ew.

The original System Shock was a pioneering effort in 1994 but the sequel refined and polished all its best qualities, stripped away the more muddled elements and brought something new to the table at the same time. It’s a game of legendary status that remains intensely engaging to this day and garnered justifiable excitement (especially from me) when it was digitally re-released early this year.

At its core SS2 is a pure survival horror experience; waking up from cryostasis aboard portentously named FTL vessel the Von Braun adrift in deep space, you find the ship almost completely devoid of regular humans, with what company you do have being distinctly mutated and hostile. As such at the behest of e-mails from unsettlingly callous ‘Doctor Janice Polito’ you are required to piece together what happened through scattered audio-logs and set about fixing the situation.

While this isn’t an especially original scenario for a videogame to drop you in it’s the details that really make it. The audio-logs establish characters who gradually, disturbingly slip from the day-to-day tedium of their jobs over to paranoia, horror and much worse as things spiral out of control. The gameplay meanwhile quickly takes hold, demanding you to think quickly and watch your back at all times; you never have quite enough ammo, never feel truly safe and are always, always oppressively alone.

These hybrids alternate between trying to kill you and begging you to kill them. They're lovely.

These hybrids alternate between trying to kill you and begging you to kill them. They’re lovely.

The big twist seems pretty unoriginal on paper too, but again the execution really sells it. When you find the long deceased corpse of Doctor Polito your isolation is made complete as you realise who you’ve really been working for and the game’s main villain is revealed. Sci-Fi has no shortage of bonkers computer intelligences but Shodan – also the first game’s malevolent AI nemesis – is effortlessly memorable.

Sporting an arrogant ‘goddess’ complex and complete disdain for all lower forms of life, Shodan deceives then forcibly manipulates you to the end of the game, enforcing the feeling of her being a near omnipotent, constant  presence alongside the ship’s ominous background hum. Couple that with a voice that will haunt your dreams with rasping, fractured utterances of “L-L-Look at you hacker” and you’ve got the recipe for a perfect nightmare.

Masterpiece isn’t a word I use lightly, but System Shock 2 is just that. The low number of polygons and fuzzy textures might be betray its age but as far as playability and atmosphere goes it’s still a stunner, essential to anyone who loves the sci-fi/horror genre.

As such 2007’s Bioshock had a tall order to meet following this. It’s not a direct sequel – some rights complications put a stop to that – but the overall template and presence of Ken Levine on writing duties again make this feel very much like a continuation.

That said, when I initially began playing it I was concerned it was more of a remake; a friend of mine said he was “envious” of people who went straight to playing Bioshock without playing SS2 first and I get what he means. Putting aside the very different era, setting and aesthetic the base elements are nearly identical.

Uuuunder the seeeeea!

Under the seeeeea!

Picking up audio logs depicting the decline of civilised values over to animalistic bio-horror? You got it. A silent protagonist with no back-story dropped in to fix things? Of course. Near constant solitude and danger? Naturally. There’s even a big twist in the final act where your guide over the radio turns out to be the main villain, sound familiar? To anyone who’s played System Shock 2 it’s basically business as usual with an art deco twist.

At first.

Bioshock’s trick is in extensive layering and depth of the setting, coupled with a willingness to play with subtlety which is lost between explosions in most other FPS. I’m not going to try and claim that ‘Rapture’ – the game’s city beneath the sea – is scientifically plausible, but the politics and noble intentions on which this aquatic ‘utopia’ is founded all feel very credible.

Mixing believable historical details of the post-WW2 period with more fantastical sci-fi elements a truly immersive world is created, far richer and more unique than System Shock’s steel corridors, space mutants and insane AI’s. It lacks the moment-by-moment tension of the latter and the controls feel a tad gluey, but it makes for a distinct and boldly different follow-up. Comfortably familiar but also exciting and fresh.

'Care'. What you're going to need after running into this guy.

‘Care’. What you’re going to need after running into this guy.

The writing ups the ante as well. The surface story itself is harrowing enough, with Rapture’s founder Andrew Ryan building his city on the seemingly noble intention of ‘free-enterprise’. Throughout, there’s a palpable sense of rising dread as you piece together the decline of the city’s inhabitants; whether through the genetic manipulation and powers of ‘Adam’ – Rapture’s driving discovery – or an inexorable moral decline away from surface control, almost every character’s story you trace takes a chilling trajectory into the heart of darkness.

Where Bioshock really sets itself apart from the crowd though and what the story is really about has nothing to do with the politics at work, at its core this is a game about games.

The shameless trick is in leading the player to believe their character is basically a nobody, a speechless Mr. X or Deus ex Machina  with no connection to the world they’re in, only the objective to ‘fix it’. It was that way in SS2 and pretty much every other shooter, so why would it be any different here?

bioshock1

Ello there.

Even more astounding is the way clues are dropped under your nose from start to finish. Again your being manipulated, however this time there was never any question of choice; speed grown and genetically programmed to obey the phrase “would you kindly” you’re casually led along and told what to do with the words innocuously inserted before each order given.

“Hang on” the player thinks, “that’s not true, I was always in control…” But were you? Are you really in control in any games? No matter how much ‘freedom’ a game might claim to have there will always be rules, always be constraints instilled by the developer and almost certainly objectives you will need to follow to progress. Bioshock doesn’t give you any more freedom than it’s contemporaries but it provides a powerful critique of the medium, reminding us that most of our choice remains an illusion.

Enter Bioshock Infinite.

Good job I'm not terrified of rollercoasters! Oh. wait.

Good job I’m not terrified of rollercoasters! Oh. wait.

Much as I’d like to ignore it completely for its unadventurous continuation of the universe, Bioshock 2 may have well played a key role in shaping the third entry in Irrational’s trilogy. The fact the series had already had one disappointing sequel from a different developer most likely gave Levine and his team an idea of the expectations they were dealing with for the next major instalment. It’s to their credit that rather than ducking under this problem or pushing against it ineffectually they make it an integral part of the narrative and even the gameplay itself.

Things are mixed up quite a bit from the start; this time we find ourselves in an ultra-nationalistic flying ‘utopia’ Columbia around 1912, our character Booker DeWitt has a voice and back-story while rather than exploring the ruins of a society you are thrust into the middle of living and largely functional one.

Still there’s an unshakable familiarity to proceedings at first. The hallmarks from former ‘Shock’ games are firmly in place from super-powers (‘Vigors’ here) to audio logs. It’s all invested with absolutely stunning detail and there are moments of unmatched exhilaration but for the first few hours of the game I couldn’t shake the sense that something was really off.

2013-09-04_00006

Not recommended for bird-phobics.

For all its grandeur and excitement Infinite feels strangely dissonant throughout its first act. The game has shifted from the survival horror of SS2 firmly over to action-adventure, and yet it clings to the somewhat ill-fitted systems of its predecessors. There are regular people milling about everywhere and yet you still have to hunt for audio-logs (Voxophone records) to uncover the story. Even the super powered vigors lack the sense of grounding in the setting the original Bioshock’s equivalent ‘plasmids’ had…

My mistake was in thinking this all occurs by accident and not by design.

The first major shift takes place when Booker meets and rescues his objective – a girl named Elizabeth – from imprisonment by the Columbia’s puritanical founder Father Comstock. It’s quickly established that Elizabeth – the games other major character – has a unique power to create ‘tears’ between dimensions, an ability which initially is utilised in gameplay before developing into something much, much bigger.

I’ve heard people say this ability is inherently ‘out of context’ and indeed I can’t believe it’s coincidental in relation to the other out of place elements. All the little nods to the previous ‘Shock’ games are deliberately misleading, giving you the impression you’ll be getting more of the same then slapping you in the face at the last minute. It’s indicated that the world itself is built on stolen pieces from other realities; music taken from the future and recomposed in era style, advanced technologies borrowed, while in a neat touch even the vigors are hinted at being based off a glimpse into the world of Rapture from the first Bioshock. It feels like a bit of a mishmash of concepts because it’s actually meant to.

I won’t go into the intricate details of the exact plot, as while brilliant it would require another article’s worth of writing to break down and is frankly best experienced firsthand. What I did want to cover here is what the game really seems to be saying and how it addresses the burden of expectation. How on earth do you make a sequel to something tearing open the lid on the illusion of choice?

Well, if Bioshock was essentially a game about games then Infinite is a game about the Bioshock series itself, the unavoidable hype surrounding it and franchise constraints. As the story progressed the use of Elizabeth’s tears becomes more extreme and it’s not long before you’re hopping between realities, each time the implications and changes becoming more drastic. Regardless, it seems as though a sense of fate is being hammered in, with nothing really being changed for the better in the long run.

In an early scene involving the Lutece’s – a pair of scientists who keep appearing everywhere with supernatural regularity – they ask you to flip a coin and guess which side it comes up. Guessing heads it comes up as such and they mark it on a board of constant heads with weary knowingness. Someone had to point it out to me but this is something repeated every time you’re thrown a coin in the game, it always comes up heads without fail. This is essentially the grand joke on the player; no matter the route taken the end results are the same.

As such when the inter-dimensional meddling final pulls the game’s world apart in the final act it is with a satisfying resonance that Elizabeth notes “we swim in different oceans, but land on the same shore” and that “There’s always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, and there’s always a city.” The real strength of this line is that it not only refers to inevitable conclusion awaiting Booker at the end of story but that it refers to the Bioshock series as a whole and systematically deconstructs the principles it’s built on or as they put it the “constants”.

The series has always fascinatingly adhered to these constants while straining against them wanting to be more; to push the medium’s boundaries while all the while being tethered to the expectations of its audience. It’s a sound thematic conclusion not just to Infinite but all its forbearers. Each game has taken a different route but each ends up on the same shore, the honesty with which it acknowledges this being completely disarming and almost completely unheard of elsewhere in the industry.

I could write more than a few essays on all the thoughts and feelings the Shock trilogy has inspired in me, but in simple terms perhaps the reason they’re so important, so personal to me is the sense we’ve grown up alongside one another. When I fired up Doom back during my carefree childhood it didn’t matter there was no real story or deeper reason to shoot monsters in the face, just as I might have innocently and un-ironically enjoyed Rambo: First Blood Part II before I learned what propaganda was. With each blast-by-numbers shooter I play though or RPG where you’re the heroic world saviour I feel increasingly disenchanted by the formula.

Just as I’ve increasingly questioned the strength of interactive stories, justification for simulated violence and artistic merit of games as I age, so too it seems has Irrational. Their games aren’t offering the answer necessarily, but they do take a moment to stop and make us question what we’re doing and why.

I can’t lie, I still love shooting virtual monsters/thugs/robots in the face sometimes. That said I’m very glad games are made which can still shock us out of the familiar pattern and remind us that there’s always more.

Now, just don’t ask me to pick a favourite of the three…


Being a Busy Bee…

October 4, 2013

Busybees

… Not on the comic front obviously given the lack of activity here, but I’ve been working hard for the last week or so planning out an animation commission – among other things – and felt offering some kind of life signs here would be a good idea. I dare say my readership right now has dwindled to almost nill given my barren update schedule but on a personal level at least it seems important to push myself into regular posting again.

Having paid work that’s also creatively fulfilling is certainly more than agreeable but inevitably it has been stealing away a fair amount of my time being a responsibility rather than indulgence; plus I’ve been wrangling with a few long-term concerns right now that are threatening to go nuclear if I don’t face them head on.

The good news is that while poorly timed I feel like I’ve finally found a way to speed up production of Branch without compromising the quality too severely. The proof will be in the pudding so to speak so I’ll go into details about it when I next post a page which hopefully will be sooner rather than later.

The bad news is that it seems increasingly unlikely I’ll have new material ready for October’s MCM Comic Con in London. More than a bit of a shame given how much I wanted to redeem my last spindly offering, but it’ll at least be nice to visit the comic village again and see what other folks are up to.

Regardless, when it does arrive I’ll really have to make sure my next finished issue is something special now.


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